Justification by Faith Alone: Luther’s Quest and the Ultimate Question
What makes October 31st important to the Christian isn’t Halloween. Rather, this day commemorates the birthday of the Protestant Reformation. In light of this occasion, I’d like to initiate a series of posts on the great doctrine of justification. As we come to consider this doctrine, I’d commend to us the words of the Scottish theologian, James Buchanan:
The best preparation for the study of this doctrine is—neither great intellectual ability nor much scholastic learning—but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God.
Martin Luther’s Quest
It was precisely that kind of a conscience that resided in a German monk named Martin Luther. Luther had grown up with a deep sense of his own sinfulness, and of God’s inflexible justice. At the age 21, as he was traveling to the University of Erfurt to continue his studies in law, he was caught in the middle of a thunderstorm. Overwhelmed with a fear of God’s coming judgment, he vowed to become a monk, hoping that through the monastic life, he might flee from the wrath to come.
Not long after, Luther entered an Augustinian monastery and took the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Then he was ordained a priest. With great zeal he prayed, fasted, denied his body rest, performed religious services, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and anything else he thought might make him right with God. But nothing seemed to help. His conscience still pronounced him guilty.
Then, he was asked to be Professor of Bible at Wittenburg. Here Luther began to study the Scriptures. And it was in this study that he came upon Romans 1:17, which reads, “For in [the gospel] the righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that revealed by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous shall live by faith.” Listen to Luther’s own description of what happened:
I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the righteousness of God and the statement that the righteous shall live by faith. Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through sheer grace and mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took a new meaning, and whereas before the justice of God had filled me with hate, now it became inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul, became to me a gate to heaven.
The Ultimate Question
What Martin Luther said about Romans 1:17, we might rightly say about the entire doctrine of justification—justification is the sinner’s gateway to heaven. For it’s this doctrine that answers the question: How can a sinful man be made right with a holy and just God?
That’s probably the most important question we could ever ask? Some of us are busy trying to answer other questions: Where am I going to go for college? What kind of a job am I going to get? Who am I going to marry? Those are important questions—they’re big and weighty issues! That is, until we place them alongside this question: How can I, a sinner, be made right with God who is holy and just? Alongside this question, the others become quite trivial. Indeed, there’s a sense in which we’re wasting our time trying to answer those questions until we’ve asked and answered the ultimate question–the question that is answered by the biblical doctrine of justification by faith.
In the subsequent posts, I’d like to unfold the doctrine of justification by asking and answering three questions: (1) What does the Bible mean by “justify”? (2) How can God justify sinners? (3) How can we receive God’s justification?